Media literacy: Dissecting and discerning what we read

Communications professionals are among the most media literate people there are. Still, the industry must do more to fight 'fake news.'

The "fake news" epidemic continues to pose a threat to many facets of our lives. It has fueled an increasingly polarized political landscape and forced trusted, legacy media to go to great lengths to defend their journalistic integrity.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, only 39% of adults feel very confident that they can tell the difference between real and fake news. As a public relations and communications professional, I find this distrust in the truth to be more than just concerning; it is a threat to the information age in which we live.

As communications strategists, we help our clients build their reputations that allow them to grow their business and remain successful. But it is also our duty to help them be the company they want to be known as, not just look like it. I often cite a famous Cicero quote, "esse quam videri," which translates to "to be, rather than to seem." As ethical PR practitioners, we must be vigilant in communicating with integrity and accuracy on behalf of our clients. It is also our job to work with the media to ensure their stories are accurate.

As such, I encourage fellow communications professionals to be advocates for media literacy and to reinforce the immense value of credible and verifiable news organizations and the vital role of professional journalists.

Doubling down on education
Because of the nature of our work, I think it’s safe to say that communications professionals are among the most media literate people you can find. And yet, because the media landscape has changed so dramatically in recent years, it is critical that we invest in education that will help us stay acutely aware of the media landscape and the characteristics, variety, and viability of media channels that are available to consumers.

We all must be fully up-to-speed on the multiplicity of media channels, how they source and fact-check their stories, and each channel’s target audiences. But more important is ensuring the media literacy of our future generations, who may otherwise grow up not knowing – or caring about – the difference between fact and fiction.

That is why my company, Ketchum, made the decision to support Ithaca College’s Project Look Sharp, a national program that offers tools and curriculum for educators to teach media literacy at all educational levels.

I wanted to hear what teachers on the frontline are experiencing in their classrooms to learn more about how the private sector can be part of the solution, so I went directly to the source. I recently participated in a discussion on decoding media bias, hosted at the Newseum in Washington, DC, by Project Look Sharp and the National Council for the Social Studies.

The whole point of the workshop, which drew teachers from as far away as Hawaii, was to discuss ways to encourage students to apply critical-thinking skills that empower them to independently question controversial or complex information they read or hear in the media. I was energized by what I heard and by the engagement and passion of the teachers who participated.

Truth, above all
As communications experts, we appreciate that everyone has their own interpretation of events and news. As the brilliant essayist Anaïs Nin wrote, "We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are." We can all embrace that plurality of opinion and diversity of thought among the receivers of information. But when the source of information is corrupted and invisibly biased, it damages our whole system.

Now, more than ever, we need to hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards and support media literacy programs for current and future generations. It’s a smart investment, and now is the time to do it.

Rob Flaherty is chairman and chief executive officer of Ketchum. Follow him on Twitter at @flahertyrob.

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